MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies men's basketball team is making a habit of close games. And in 2021-22, fortune has favored the Grizzlies for the majority of Big Sky Conference play.
That theme was evident again on Saturday night in Dahlberg Arena in front of 3,882 fans, as Cameron Parker knocked down a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds left to lift UM past rival Eastern Washington, 61-59. EWU got the ball in play but was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer as the Grizzlies sealed the win, their thirteenth straight at home.
The Grizzlies (15-6, 8-2 Big Sky Conference play) get the regular-season sweep of the Eagles (11-10, 5-5) after UM topped EWU 90-78 back on Jan. 6.
Josh Bannan led the way for UM with 21 points and nine rebounds while Robby Beasley III added 12 points and Brandon Whitney poured in 10 as the Grizzlies won their fourth straight game and eighth in their last nine contests.
UM led 48-38 with 13:58 left in the game, but the Eagles clawed their way back into the game. After EWU's Steele Venters canned a three to tie it 59-59, UM had the ball with 18.8 seconds left in the game. Parker said after the game he was looking to get it to Bannan but instead was fouled on a drive.
"(Bannan) set the screen and then they switched so I was just trying to pass it to him in the post," Parker said. "He ended up passing it to me, I pump-faked and drove and then they fouled me but we were trying to get (Bannan) in the post with the mismatch. He did really well all game, he's been playing well all season. He's our reliable guy."
Both Parker and head coach Travis DeCuire said they wanted Parker to miss the second free throw to try and waste more time, but Parker's attempt banked in, and Parker was noticeably frustrated with himself after the make.
"Bank's open," DeCuire said with a smile. "It allowed me to get two of our better defenders in the game. Under normal circumstances we put a little pressure on them and make them dribble a few times and hoist up something late. So it was going to work out either way, we just thought that on a miss, they couldn't run a play, and that the posts were going to get a rebound and by the time they outlet it, they were going to have to throw it from behind half-court. We lucked out a little bit but that's what happens when you do all of the right things."
Even when UM's offense stalled down the stretch, the Griz used their defense again to stop EWU from taking too much advantage of that. The Eagles shot at a 36.8% rate from the floor and went 6 for 24 from deep, while turning the ball over 13 times compared to UM's eight.
"Defense is something we pride ourselves on. Coach really harps on it and that's really where we focus on, that side of the ball," Bannan said. "We've got great defensive players. Brandon Whitney did an excellent job again. He's the best defensive player in the league if you ask me. Between that and everyone else playing together, playing hard, it makes it really difficult to score."
The Grizzlies finished shooting 38.9% from the field and went 4 for 15 from 3-point range. UM went just 15 for 22 from the free throw line which hurt them down the stretch as EWU mounted its comeback.
Two nights after moving into third place on UM's all-time wins list, DeCuire became just the fourth coach in Big Sky history to reach 100 conference wins, as he won his 157th game and has a 100-38 conference record in his eight years at his alma mater.
"To hold a team as explosive and talented as they are to 29% (in the second half), you give yourself a great opportunity and you don't have to make a lot of shots to win," DeCuire added about the team's defense. "That really is the biggest thing for us is we've always questioned this group, 'Can you win these games without making shots? How can you help us win these games without making shots?' And it's become our identity."
The Grizzlies now hit the road next week, and are scheduled to take on Weber State (16-5, 9-1) on Thursday and Idaho State (3-16, 1-9) on Saturday. The Wildcats hold the top spot in the league but their lone loss came against Montana after a buzzer-beater in Missoula on Jan. 1. The Grizzlies also beat the Bengals in their first meeting, 78-54 back on Dec. 30.